From a young age Martyn Bennett was recognized as one of the most promising musicians and composers of his generation. Blending his classical training with a love of traditional and techno music, he created a wide variety of work that combined these influences with others from around the world. The main result was five ground-breaking albums whose appeal reached far wider than the contemporary and traditional cultures he embraced and fused so effectively in his tragically short life. The compilation album Aye, features remastered tunes from four of those albums (Martyn Bennet, Bothy Culture, Hardland and Grit) along with previously unreleased material and a remix of Peter Gabriel’s Sky Blue.
The album opens with Ud The Doudouk and Four notes, from Martyn’s second solo album, Bothy Culture. In this album more than any other Martyn’s love of music from around the world, his passion for Scottish culture and his sense of humour shine through. These tracks combine middle eastern influences with pipes and rave beats in a pair of tunes that never failed to induce an ecstatic reaction in live performance.
Liberation, from Grit, features Michael Marra’s enthralling reading of Psalm 118, enmeshed with layer upon layer of haunting Gaelic psalm singing recorded in the early 1960s. The effect is mesmerizing and this faith affirming piece is widely regarded as Martyn’s masterwork. Another inclusion from Grit, Martyn’s final album, is Blackbird. Linking the traditions of North Eastern European travelling people and those of the Western Scottish Highlands, Blackbird blends symphonic strings, a steady drum beat and a sound wider than a highland sky with Lizzie Higgins’ plaintive ballad of a girl abandoned by her lover.
Sky Blue Remix first appeared on Peter Gabriel’s 2002 DVD EP More Than This. The track is a perfect example of Martyn’s ability to take a piece of music and merge his own instantly recognizable textures.
Aye includes two tracks from Martyn’s eponomously named first album. Swallowtail (the first track I ever saw Martyn play) takes a reel learned from Fermanagh’s Cathal McConnel. Opening with a gentle low whistle and synth, the track soon picks up speed with an infectious back-beat, and intensifies as the highland pipes are introduced to the set. From the same album, the compilation closes with Stream – a gorgeous Grappelli-esque exploration of the fiddle, full of sunshine and summer breezes.
Martyn’s third album, Hardland was a collaboration with guitarist Martin Low. Harry’s In Heaven is a re-working of the track Deoch An Dorus from Martyn’s first album. Combining the voice of music hall star Harry Lauder and a rendition of Sleepy Maggie, this explosive track is typical of Martyn’s exuberance. Distortion Pipe is based around a tune by Fred Morrison and showcases Martyn’s skill on the Highland pipes in excellent style.
There are two more tracks on the album that were never included on a CD. Crackcorn is fun take on the American folk song Jimmy Crack Corn, recorded on Mull by Martyn and Ian Fraser. It was available for a while as a download from Martyn’s web site and has been lovingly re-mastered for Aye. It’s a rare joy to hear Martyn sing, and his keen musical ear made him a fine singer. Anyone who’s watched the original series of Transatlantic Sessions will have heard his vocal contribution to Auld Lang Syne. It’s worth noting that the collaborative and solo appearances in this acclaimed series were made two years before Martyn even released his first album.
The second unreleased track, Paisley Spin, is based around three tracks by the late Gerry Rafferty and was originally commissioned in 2001 for a festival celebrating the history and heritage of the Renfrewshire town. At the time, Martyn’s illness prevented him from completing the project and this compilation is the first time the piece has been available.
This review only scratches the surface. Aye, with its excellent sleeve notes, is an invaluable release for those keen to learn more about, or introduce others to, Martyn Bennett’s work. The compilation itself only scratches the surface. To fully represent the spectrum of Martyn’s creativity on one CD would be impossible. In his solo CDs his love of Scottish and Gaelic culture was evident in numerous ways. His reworking of the poetry of Hamish Henderson and Sorley MacLean is breathtaking, his love for Gaelic song flourished in another release – Glen Lyon, his skill as a composer and arranger shines in his orchestral work, Mackay’s Memoirs. The piece was written for the opening of The Scottish Parliament in 1999. It was performed, and eventually recorded by, students of the City Of Edinburgh Music School. The work explores the possibilities of the bagpipes, and the piobaireachd itself, as a basis for contemporary music. Mackay’s Memoirs has been made available for download to coincide with Aye’s release and those looking to explore Martyn’s music beyond the dance floor should seek it out.
There was far more to Martyn’s productive talent than is represented in his CD releases. Aye, however, presents a fine collection of his best known, innovative and audience pleasing work.
Review by Neil McFadyen